There are two ways that the skill of craftsmanship can be emphasized: by showing it off through masses of meticulous decorative details, or by stripping everything to the bare minimum and bringing into focus just a few perfectly executed qualities. Think of it as maximalism vs. minimalism — Gucci vs. Kinfolk.
You might assume that cloisonne — with its recurring ornate motifs delineated in fine silver and gold wire and inlaid with richly colored enamels — would fall squarely into the former category. But one look at the early 20th-century “Incense Burner with Chrysanthemum Arabesques” by Yasuyuki Namikawa on show at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum (Teien), will prove you wrong. Predominantly white, it is decorated with just a single band of green leaves and blue flowers.
“Namikawa Yasayuki and Japanese Cloisonne,” a retrospective of the artisan credited with popularizing Japanese cloisonne during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), has a wealth of other unexpected exhibits — jars with painterly landscapes, vases sporting understated compositions and containers with simple designs. It is these later works that best illustrate Namikawa’s innovative approach to cloisonne as an artistic medium, rather than as a purely decorative art. But even his earlier classic pieces, created for export during the height of Japonisme in Europe, displayed unusual features unseen in the Chinese cloisonne from which his craft derived.
Perhaps being self-taught drove Namikawa to be extra meticulous and gave him the freedom to experiment. He was also fortunate to be working during a time of cloisonne revival spurred by the Meiji Restoration introduction of Western knowledge to industries. Paying heed to techniques and new enamels brought by government-employed foreign specialists, Namikawa was intuitive when it came to captivating an overseas market. His astonishingly intricate patterns surpassed that of his predecessors, while his development of vitreous enamels, polished for weeks to maximize luster, brought an unrivalled luxuriousness to the art form.
At a time when 90 percent of Japan’s cloisonne was being exported, Namikawa was winning international prizes for impeccably executed designs and the inventions of two enamels: a translucent black, and a goldstone-like finish that shimmered with metallic dust. Overseas visitors, including Rudyard Kipling, even sought out his workshop to observe the painstaking process of detailed wirework, precise enamelling and conscientious polishing.
In Japan, however, aesthetic preferences were evolving. As Kana Ooki, a curator of the Teien, notes in the exhibition catalogue, while the populous designs of butterflies, sprays of flowers and dragons continued to delight Europe, Japanese critics yearned for a revival of traditional and restrained artistry. At the 1889 National Industrial Exhibition, despite the acclaim he had received that year at the Paris Exposition Universalle, Namikawa was criticized for not looking beyond the classic use of elaborate motifs.
As his home country became weary of Western influence, Namikawa’s works began to reflect an appreciation of traditional arts and crafts. The blank white space of “Incense Burner with Chrysanthemum Arabesques” accentuates the vessel’s form, while in later works, he introduced nihonga-like (Japanese-style painting) landscapes, such as scenic views of Kinkakuji Temple and Kasuga Grand Shrine.
Paring down the decorative elements did not, however, mean a lack of innovation. Namikawa continued to introduce new techniques, such as manipulating different thicknesses of wires to suggest painterly brushwork and using subtle enamel color gradations. By 1896 he had impressed enough people to be appointed an Imperial Craftsman to the Meiji Emperor, but by the time he had relinquished all decorative excess to settle on a style inspired by ink-brush paintings, the West’s fixation on Japan’s arts had waned. The domestic market, unfortunately, wasn’t enough to sustain Namikawa’s workshop, which eventually shuttered in 1923, just four years before he passed away.
At least today, we still have these outstanding examples, created by a master of detail, that today’s maximalists and minimalists can both savor.
“Namikawa Yasuyuki and Japanese Cloisonne — The Allure of Meiji Cloisonne: The Aesthetic of Translucent Black” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum runs until April 9. ¥1,100. Closed second and fourth Wed. of the month. www.teien-art-museum.ne.jp